No right to revenge

Last month, two California anesthesiologists stumbled upon an astonishing discovery at San Quentin prison: Condemned killer Michael Morales is actually a living, breathing human being. Confronted with this fact, the two physicians—summoned to provide humanitarian cover for the profoundly cruel and unusual practice of strapping a man to a table, shoving a hypodermic needle in his arm and injecting a lethal chemical cocktail into his bloodstream—declined to participate in what has become our culture’s most macabre ritual.

Their refusal brought to a halt a rapid string of successive executions some critics are calling the Texafication of California, a tip of the 10-gallon hat to our president’s home state, where state-sanctioned extermination occurs with the regularity of the lunar cycle. Rest assured; the stay will be only temporary. Physicians take an oath to first do no harm to their fellow humans, but society at large adheres to no such principle. Rather, it’s the opposite. Forty years ago, where matters of crime and punishment were concerned, the operative word was rehabilitation. Today, it is revenge.

Witness an execution, and you’ll see only a handful of people expressing any sort of genuine satisfaction with the process: the family and friends of the victim. No doubt, the family and friends of Terri Winchell, the Lodi teenager Morales brutally raped and murdered in 1981, are disappointed that the execution has been temporarily delayed. All of us can identify with their need for redemption. In their shoes, we’d expect the same entitlement. Yet, study our Constitution closely, and you’ll discover that no such right to revenge exists.

That’s why the tough-on-crime crowd prefers to try its cases in the kangaroo court of public opinion. The latest example is Jessica’s Law, the Republican-supported Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act, an initiative that recently qualified for the November ballot with 713,787 signatures, nearly double the required amount. Considering the language of the initiative, it’s easy to see why so many citizens signed on. It hits all of today’s panic buttons, from the rampant spread of Internet pornography to the oft-repeated but bogus claim that sex offenders have higher recidivism rates than other criminals. It plays on our deepest fears and one of our darkest needs: the need for revenge.

Jessica’s Law takes its name from Jessica Lunsford, the Florida 9-year-old who was raped and murdered last year by a convicted sexual offender. Obviously, no one wants to endure what her parents were put through, and most of us would seek vengeance. Jessica’s Law plays on that desire, seeking to circumvent the legal system that protects the accused from the mob’s wrath. This is anathema to a so-called civilized society, but no doubt Jessica’s Law will pass by a landslide, just as the state soon will resume the practice of premeditated murder.